Small Effort, Big Reward
A regular health care routine ensures that your dog or cat is getting the best of natural care

By Linda Formichelli

Anyone committed to a pet knows that animals are complex and amazing. Behind those cute whiskers or wagging tails you'll find loyalty, mischief, intelligence and sometimes capable workers. There are dogs that cheer up hospital patients and cats that alert their owners to gas leaks, as well as roly-poly puppies and kittens that make us happy even when they trash our houses. It's no wonder most people consider their animal companions full-status members of the family.

"People love their animals so much, we're seeing a trend of laymen learning as much as possible about pet health," says Charlotte Reed, director of Two Dogs & A Goat Inc., a pet care service in New York City. Whether you've had a menagerie in your room since the age of 8 or you've just adopted your first mutt, knowing the basics about natural pet care will help you keep your canine or feline companion happy and healthy for years to come.

The Young And Restless
Congratulations if you've added a fuzzy new member to the family. Now take your new companion to the vet for a checkup, pronto. Intestinal worms are common in puppies and kittens. Sometimes you'll see the worms in a pet's stool, but other times they're invisible to the naked eye. Cues that your young pet has intestinal worms include loss of appetite, lethargy and diarrhea.

Immune problems are also common in a young pet because the animal's defense system isn't fully developed. Kittens and puppies can pick up chronic respiratory viruses from other animals and from environmental germs. Reed suggests keeping young pets indoors at all times until they reach four months of age.

When your animal companion celebrates its 7- or 8-month birthday, your vet may recommend switching from kitten or puppy food to adult pet food because the animal no longer needs the excess protein that's added to food to promote early growth and a healthy immune support system.

The Mature Years
Vigilance on your part can keep your adult pet in top form. The cornerstone to long-term health is taking your pet for yearly checkups. Ask your vet about a vaccination schedule. Experts used to recommend yearly vaccinations, but according to Roger Valentine, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in Santa Monica, California, most cats need shots only once every three years, and dogs can get by with fewer shots as well. "By limiting the vaccines, we can limit side effects and allergic reactions that occur from overvaccinating," Valentine says.

To help ensure your pet's health between vet visits, Reed suggests setting up a regular brushing and bathing routine. "One of the ways you can bond with your pet is through grooming," she says, which not only keeps the animal clean but gives you the chance to look over its body carefully to detect health issues such as smelly ears or bad breath.

Breath that's less than sweet can be a sign of dental problems. Tooth problems can lead to health issues elsewhere in the body—for example, bacteria that enter through a diseased gum line can cause problems in the kidneys and heart valves—so it's a good idea to brush your animal's teeth every day. Pick up a special pet toothbrush and toothpaste at your local pet store, or use gauze to gently wipe the outer surfaces of the teeth.

Because a sedentary animal is no healthier than a sedentary person, it's your job to make sure your adult dog or cat gets plenty of exercise. "Exercise will cut down destructive behavior, develop muscle tone, and keep your pet's mind stimulated," says Reed. Dogs thrive on long walks and runs, and cats can get a workout chasing toys and clawing a scratching post. Reed suggests taking dogs out three times a day: in the morning, after work and before bed.

Even the most creative exercise program will drain your pet if it isn't getting an adequate diet. Subpar pet diets can lead to food allergies, skin and coat problems, and other animal ailments. "As soon as you put them on good food, their hair takes on a better shine and they look a lot better," says Valentine. Holistic pet care practitioners suggest a natural, organic, fresh diet or high-quality, all-natural prepared foods. If you've got the time and desire to create healthy homemade meals for your pets, ask a sympathetic vet for advice or consult Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, with Susan Hubble Pitcairn (Rodale Press, 1995).

Old Age Is Relative
When does your pet qualify for a senior discount card? It all depends on breed and size. Cats and smaller dogs have a longer life expectancy and may be considered elderly at 7, 8 or even older. Larger dogs may be considered senior as early as age 5. In older pets, arthritis, obesity, eye deterioration, diabetes and heart problems are common ailments, so when your dog or cat first starts to slow down, it's time to consider taking it in for twice-yearly checkups.

Kidney problems are also common in older pets, according to Valentine. If you notice your cat or dog drinking and urinating excessively, it may be the first sign of a kidney ailment. Don't wait: Get to the vet immediately, because many kidney problems can be effectively treated when caught early. And ask about your animal's diet; your vet may recommend low-protein food for your older pet. Researchers have linked high-protein diets to bone problems common in aging animals.

Wholesome food, regular checkups, plenty of exercise, and lots of affection are the keys to a healthy pet who will willingly provide comforting companionship—along with contented purrs and slobber showers—for many happy years.

Linda Formichelli lives with her husband and two big cats, Ivan Ivanovich and Rupert.